Researchers have found a way to transfer memories in snails via injection

The California sea hare Aplysia californica. Credit Wikimedia Commons

The California sea hare Aplysia californica. Credit Wikimedia Commons

A group of scientist from the University of California (UCLA) have successfully transplanted memories from one snail to another.

The research, published in the journal eNeuro, could provide new clues in the search for the physical basis of memory. Another camp believed memories were stored in the nuclei of neurons.

According to Glanzman, that suggests RNA can be used to create an engram.

"It's as though we transferred the memory", said the study's senior author, David Glanzman, from the University of California, Los Angeles.

But there are many different types of RNA, and Glanzman's team plans to do more research to figure out determine which types most directly impact memory.

"It was completely arbitrary which synaptic connections got erased", Glanzman says.

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Memories persist in synapses - junctions in the brain's neural circuitry.

"I don't think this paper excludes that the synapses are making a major contribution to this memory, but they definitely suggest that there are things built on top of that that also contribute". Like all mollusks, these snails have groups of neurons called ganglia, rather than brains. This sensitised the snail so when they were poked they contracted their gills in a robust offensive action.

In the study, UCLA scientists first gave mild electric shocks to the snails' tails, causing them to have a defensive withdrawal reflex for 50 seconds when simply tapped, the BBC reported.

In their experiments, the UCLA researchers trained snails to be more sensitive to perceived danger.

This idea is probably going to strike most of my colleagues as extremely improbable.

Once this initial phase of the experiment was completed, the researchers extracted RNA from the sensitized sea hare snails and injected it into untrained specimens.

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This groundbreaking experiment began with training a group of sea snails belonging to the Aplysia californica species, colloquially known as the California sea hare.

When the RNA was inserted into snails that had not undergone this process, they behaved just as if they had been sensitised.

In the interest of removing as many variables as possible, they also extracted RNA from unshocked snails and injected it into other unshocked snails. That makes the animals more sensitive, so that in response to stimuli they defensively withdraw for longer than they normally would. RNA from shocked and unshocked snails were added to Petri dishes containing unshocked snail neurons. (Every neuron has a few thousand neurotransmitters.) Glanzman holds an alternate view, trusting that recollections are put away in the core of neurons.

"These are marine snails and, when they are alarmed, they release a lovely purple ink to hide themselves from predators", Glanzman said in a statement.

However, Glanzman's unique experiment was met with skepticism by some scientists. Specifically, how memories are stored.

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